The wrong gong

On July 4th, a wave capsized a boat carrying 52 Sub-Saharan migrants from the Moroccan coast north across the Mediterranean. Three men were rescued by the Spanish coastguard and the other 49 of those who were on board are believed to have drowned.

Many things tend to go through your mind after hearing or reading about a tragedy like this: what exactly caused it, the lives lost, the terrible grief of the families affected – and, of course, our own good fortune at avoiding a similar fate.

All of those things occurred to me on this occasion. But it also got me thinking about the Princess of Asturias Prize – that esteemed honour conferred every year on an array of high-achieving individuals and organisations. Last month, the prize’s jury announced it was awarding its prestigious “Concord” accolade to the European Union. The jury highlighted EU values such as “freedom, human rights and solidarity,” values, it added, that “project hope for the future in uncertain times.”

The Princess of Asturias Prize jury weren’t to know that 49 people would die needlessly on the EU’s doorstep just a few weeks after this grand announcement. But they could have made a pretty safe bet that something similar was going to happen. All they had to do was look at the news.

The Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEAR), a refugee and migrant charity, estimates that more than 5,000 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe last year – an average of 14 people each day. It says 40,000 people have died making the crossing this century.

A damning new report by Amnesty International, “A Perfect Storm: The Failure of European Policies in the Central Mediterranean”, presents the EU not as a beacon of freedom, human rights and hope, but rather as a confused bungler when it comes to migration, especially via the frequently used departure point of Libya. The report says:

“This reckless European strategy is not just failing to deliver the desired outcome of stopping departures and preventing further loss of life, but is in fact exposing refugees and migrants to even greater risks at sea and, when intercepted, to disembarkation back in Libya, where they face horrific conditions in detention, torture and rape.”

It’s a pretty rum year for the Princess of Asturias jury to single out the EU for praise. Not only has the bloc’s failure to manage the Mediterranean migrant crisis hit new depths, but the UK has embarked on its confused, uncharted divorce from the Union and a French presidential election has been held in which the far-right candidate reached the second round.

Perhaps Leonor, the 11-year-old royal who lends her title to the annual prize, was the one who decided on this year’s Concord winner – it certainly looks like the decision of a child. But then a glance at the prize jury (24 out of 30 of who were middle-aged or elderly white males) suggests a group of people far removed from the reality of the capsizing zodiacs, inequality and populist politics that are among the EU’s current challenges.

It’s a strange thing, the Princess of Asturias Prize. Its categories include sport, the arts, communication and scientific research and its winners down the years have been a mixture of the richly deserving and the utterly baffling. The list of past winners is a sort of not-quite who’s-who of international big hitters, with the caveat that you’re more likely to win the prize if you’re Spanish.

For every sensible choice, there’s another seemingly random one: for every Philip Roth there’s a Santiago Calatrava; for every Michael Schumacher there’s a Fernando Alonso (who won it two years before the German); for every National Geographic Society there’s a Google. New York City Marathon, anyone? Yes, it won in 2014.

And now it’s the EU’s turn to accept this oddly-shaped gong. Let’s hope it and the prize jury take a long hard look at themselves over the next year.

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